Come Holy Spirit: what we know not, teach us; what we have not, grant us; what we are not, make us; for your love’s sake. Amen.
If you have a visitor coming, are you of the
‘Tidy up the place, change what I’m wearing, put some flowers out, smarten up the children (or hide them), and let’s make a real effort to let them see us at our best’ school of thinking.
‘They’ll have to take us as they find us’type?
As in nearly all things, there are probably mixed motives to either approach. For the former there’s an emphasis on courtesy and respect, but also perhaps a sense of pretence and wishful thinking. For the latter there’s a sense of ‘you’re welcome as one of us’ but also perhaps a sense of stubbornness and maybe a hint of laziness.
The obvious preacher’s question is ‘Which response are we likely to take when Christ comes?’ However, what I want to explore a little more in this season of preparation, is how who we are, is affected by who Christ is. One of the problems with the analogy with which I began is that we think of life as some kind of preparation for the future, for something more important that is going to happen, and so we fail to focus on the here and now, the God given present.
Today, the second Sunday of Advent, traditionally has a focus on ‘The Prophets’ with ‘John the Baptist’ starring next week, but today’s reading sneaks John in early. John himself is of course a prophet. To some he’s your classic prophet: doesn’t care how badly dressed he is or that he’s making a spectacle of himself; starey eyes; shouting at all and sundry with a message of doom and the need to repent. He may be guilty as charged on some of these accounts, but we often misunderstand what prophesy is.
In the biblical tradition prophesy is more about ‘forth-telling’ than ‘fore-telling’. The latter suggests mystical powers knowing the future; the former is about reading the signs of the times; deeply noticing the world around and telling it as it is. This is what John is doing.
Luke gives us a very precise introduction to John,
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
John is speaking when the Roman rule had turned into a crueller regime under Tiberius, the effect of which was now particularly strong in the south, and the high-priests having to fall in line and conform.
Into this world situation John’s message, we’re told, is one of repentance. It’s a wake up call: ‘pay attention’, ‘notice what’s happening’, ‘stop sleep walking into ways so far from God’s will’.
Repentance is not just reserved for Lent, it’s very much part of the Advent message as well. Repentance as our need to change direction, to turn away from destructive, unhealthy, false ways and rediscover that which is true and good and life-giving. John reads the signs of his time and holds up a mirror to society, trying to help them see themselves, the world around them, what they’re becoming and the need to change.
We can be put off by calls to repentance, consigning them to the extreme ways of the billboard-wearing oddities, but that would be to miss what is at the heart of repentance. The theologian Tom Wright has written,
Of course, Christian living is far more than simply repentance, but it is not less. All spiritual advance begins with a turning away from what is hindering our obedience.
Whether we’re the ‘tidy the house’ etc people or the ‘take me as you find me’, there’s a challenge here to face up to what needs sorting out and dealing with in our lives and how we might go about it. The reality is that we only tend to address such questions when we’re convinced there’s a need to change, which brings us back to the weeks of Advent.
For some this is a season of temporary escapism. A season whose beginning is marked by either the release of the annual John Lewis Christmas advert or Black Friday. A season where the drear and darkness of the winter can be momentarily lifted through a bit of effort and a bit of spending. A season when much of the bad news and harder realities are pushed back for a while.
The Christian keeping of Advent and its readings and liturgy takes us down a very different route. The Christian keeping of Advent is about opening our eyes wider to the reality of the world around us and the reality of our lives. It seeks to open our eyes to see God more clearly, Christ more clearly, our world more clearly, ourselves more clearly.
Opening Advent calendars is an interesting way we often do this. For many it has become a chocolate countdown to Christmas. Daily treats, taking something of the wanting out of waiting, until the big binge. For others it is about opening windows which throw light on a story. It’s a story of a child and a people. A story of hope and of promise. It’s a story of love and possibilities of greater love. It’s a story which always has the same ending because the last window is always the same window, onto a manger with a baby. The child who grows up to be the only accurate window into God.
We open each window, attend church each Sunday of Advent, opening our eyes to the needs of the world and to what God has to say about how we live here and how we love here. For most of us this will always be a journey of repentance, as we see our need to turn again to better habits, to deeper obedience, to more faithful following of the one who calls us.
Many people think that Christianity is basically saying ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do that’. It isn’t. Since the prophets of old, since John the Baptist, the message has been the same, it’s saying ‘Look! Pay attention!’ It invites us to notice what’s in front of us and lift our heads from the distracted paths we’ve laid for our ease of passage, and to look at God and God’s creation and at each other with changed eyes, because of what we see in Christ.
The priest and writer Michael Mayne has written
Come and see what God looks like, and what the world looks like, and what every man woman and child looks like, in the light of Christ, so that you may learn to love them. He is not only the window into what God is like, but into what it means to be human.
In the passage we heard from Philippians Paul prays that
…your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.
This seems a pretty good prayer for our Advent journey; that we may grow in knowledge and insight, that we may increasingly live out what we believe in, that our lives may be centred on a fullness of love which cannot but overflow in increasing generosity; a love which overflows because this fullness is the fullness of knowledge of who God is in Christ, guiding us to that which is good and true and life-giving.
So may it be,